“Making loans of any kind requires a level of expertise that we don’t think nonprofits necessarily have,” said Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, a network of nonprofit organizations that discourages the use of forgivable loans by charitable organizations.
Aviv also said that, in cases in which such loans may be necessary, “total transparency is absolutely vital” to ensure there is public confidence in the organization.
But New England Law’s board would not disclose the names of the schools that were trying to recruit O’Brien. And it refused to permit the Globe to review a record of the deliberations of a compensation committee that met to set O’Brien’s pay.
“The board has a policy of not providing documents or specific information related to internal deliberations,” the board said.
The forgivable loan to O’Brien is not the only controversial compensation practice at New England Law.
Until recently, Foster and two other board members paid themselves generous annual stipends, another practice that is generally frowned upon in the nonprofit world.
Foster, a Cambridge attorney with an active practice, received $74,500 a year for 15 hours of work per week. Board treasurer Darrell L. Outlaw, a retired district court judge, pocketed $42,000. And school corporation president John R. Simpson, a retired director of the US Secret Service who has since stepped down from the president’s post, took home $55,000.
New England Law finally discontinued pay to board members after filing its tax return in 2011, the board said. It was about the time Attorney General Martha Coakley proposed legislation to make board stipends at nonprofit organizations illegal.
“The practice of compensating independent directors for service on a charitable board is extraordinarily rare in Massachusetts, and for good reason,” she said.
“The vast majority of directors view voluntary service as a primary means of giving back to the greater community the value of their skills and experience.”
O’Brien’s networking skills are legendary and he has long used them to bolster New England Law’s reputation. Over the years, he has organized or taken part in a variety of school events featuring prominent jurists, using school funds to underwrite the jurists’ compensation, travel, and lodging expenses. The events are designed to boost the school’s cachet, but also the dean’s.
Last summer, for example, Chief Justice Roberts taught a law school class on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea that was sponsored by New England Law and three other law schools, resulting in a photograph of Roberts and O’Brien gracing the cover of New England Law’s most recent alumni magazine.
In November, retired Supreme Court Justice O’Connor was the featured guest at a celebration of O’Brien’s work with the American Bar Association, where he recently chaired the organization’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which was staged at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston.
“He is just fabulous,” O’Connor gushed to an audience including local judicial luminaries such as Roderick L. Ireland, chief of the state Supreme Judicial Court, and Mark L. Wolf, the retiring US District Court chief judge.
“People of high standing believe he does a wonderful job, and I’ve seen nothing that would contradict that,” said Wayne A. Budd, the former US attorney for Massachusetts and a New England Law board member.
“I think that reflects well on the school and adds value for the students.”
In addition, New England Law has been named one of the “top places to work in Massachusetts” by The Boston Globe three years in a row, based on surveys of employees.
National call for change
O’Brien’s ballooning compensation, like the fast-rising tuition at New England Law, comes as law schools across the country are grappling with significant economic and ethical challenges.
Many inside and outside academia are calling for structural changes to the way law schools operate, pointing out that student debt is rising as the demand for new law school graduates is diminishing.
James G. Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, called the current job climate “arguably the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years.”
According to the American Bar Association, only 55 percent of all law school graduates in the class of 2011 were able to find jobs that require a law degree within nine months of graduating.
At New England Law, just 34 percent of 2011 graduates were able to find such work, one of the lowest percentages of any accredited US law school.Continued...